Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What's So Funny? The Weird and Wonderful of Victorian Music Hall


Music hall was a popular choice for entertainment from the beginning of the 1800’s all the way to the 1950’s and ‘60s. It was affordable, often family friendly (providing you didn't bring screaming children with you) and was incredibly popular in London in particular, with hundreds of venues dotted around and some still standing today. The Victorians’ ideas of entertainment stretched far and wide; a human cannonball, witchery,
Zazel, the Human Cannonball, 1877
midgets and even an elephant, if you’re lucky. But that’s not to say the music hall business was kind to all. It was well known that performers would often get unfair contracts from theatre managers, the ‘exclusivity clause’, which stopped performers from traveling from one venue to the other, poor pay and the occasional dead cat hurled at them from a rowdy audience. Frustration at the exploitative theatre managers led to a strike in 1907. Fortunately this ended in success for the protestors and the managers began to pay fairly and allow the acts to play as often and far away as they wanted. Ultimately, music hall was very much a booming cultural phenomenon. It showed that some Victorians found humour in some very gruesome and vulgar shows, with others being entertained by the odd cross-dresser. However the most important societal effect of music hall was that it crossed class boundaries: working class men made up most of the entertainers but the most eager audiences were the middle-class, favouring the risqué field of entertainment.

What could you see?

In the early beginnings of music hall, songs and music dominated the theatres. A lot of the songs and comedy sketches were “a comment on social conditions” (vam.ac.uk) and portrayed working class life as being relatable to the working class audience and humorous to the middle and upper classes. "Music hall songs and jokes were about day to day life: lodgers, mothers-in-law, bailiffs, overdue rent, drink, debt, adversity, unfaithful wives (and husbands), hen-pecked husbands (and wives). Other songs were unashamedly patriotic or sentimental, about true love, mother love, moon and June, idyllic villages, shady trees and wandering streams.” (vam.ac.uk) The most attractive thing about the music of music hall was that the audience would learn the songs, be able to hear it numerous times and never get bored of its entertainment. Some acts became famous with just a couple of songs: as long as they were good, fans would flock to see their performance. They were Victorian age pop songs and pop stars; they were catchy and would never get old. Check out the Music of Victorian Britain here.

As music hall progressed, the acts became stranger and stranger. Charles Dickens Junior reflects on the acts you could see in a London theatre in ‘Dickens’ Dictionary of London’ in 1879. 

'Music Halls—.... Ballet, gymnastics, and so-called comic singing, form the staple of the bill of fare, but nothing comes foreign to the music-hall proprietor. Performing animals, winners of walking. matches, successful scullers, shipwrecked sailors, swimmers of the Channel, conjurers, ventriloquists, tight-rope dancers, campanologists, clog-dancers, sword-swallowers, velocipedists, champion skaters, imitators, marionettes, decanter equilibrists, champion shots, “living models of marble gems,” “statue marvels,” fire princes, “mysterious youths,” “spiral bicycle ascensionists,” flying children, empresses of the air, kings of the wire, “vital sparks,” Mexican boneless wonders,” white-eyed musical Kaffirs,’ strong-jawed ladies, cannon-ball performers, illuminated fountains, and that remarkable musical eccentricity the orchestre militaire, all have had their turn on the music-hall stage. Strangers to the business may be warned that the word “turn,’ as understood in the profession, means the performance for which the artist is engaged, and frequently comprises four or more songs, however much or little of pleasure the first effort may have given the audience. Furthermore, as many of the popular performers take several “turns” nightly, it is undesirable to visit many of these establishments on the same evening, as it is quite possible to go to four or five halls in different parts of the town, and to find widely diverse stages occupied by the same sets of performers.' (Listen to it here.)

Dickens speaks of the many varieties of acts that you could witness as a Victorian out for the evening. From “performing animals” and “shipwrecked sailors” to “flying children” and “strong-jawed ladies”, every taste was satisfied. However Dickens’ attitude towards music hall takes a turn for the worse at the end of his description. As performers had a set amount they could do in one venue, they often traveled across London multiple times in one evening to get the most out of the day: “The big stars were so successful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, crossing London in their carriages. By performing in several venues a night the top stars could earn big money.” Dickens calls it “undesirable” for performers to visit multiple stages in one night because you may have the bad luck of seeing the “same sets of performers”... this was one of the downsides of having so many stages available in London and other big cities. Whilst everyone knew about music hall, not all enjoyed it, as can be seen here by Charles Dickens Junior. Some of these eccentric and elaborate acts were distasteful to some, just like the music culture of Britain today. The Victorians didn't have the Internet or HD televisions and so Music hall encapsulated the entertainment needs of the country.   

This poster advertisement for the Royal Standard Music Hall portrays the exciting and busy night you would expect in an evening. The venue is in easy reach of public transport: “facing Victoria station” and it claims itself the “pleasure resort” for multiple districts of London. It promises “a whole evening’s amusement for one admission” and boasts the attraction’s names in bold, including pianists, acrobats and dancers. What catches the eye in the poster is the so-called “screaming comedy sketch, Wanted A Wife” which is printed in bigger font than the names of the comedians themselves. There were more acts around in music hall than we could imagine but the most interesting purely for having been appealing to the Victorians are these:

Music sheet cover for 'The Simple Pimple', colour lithographic print, published by Francis, Day and Hunter, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Character singers and comedians

Whilst the title may not seem that out of the ordinary, what the acts sang and performed most definitely was. Acts like George Robey, Harry Randall and Marie Lloyd sang songs entitled: ‘The Simple Pimple’,  'I Mustn't Let Her See Me All At Once or I'm Going To See My Last New Girl' and My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and Don’t Dilly-Dally on the Way’, referring to doing a runner to avoid paying rent. The performer would play on a specific character from a class, a family member, a stereotypical individual, anything that they would be able to make entertaining. This was often accompanied with patter, or chatting with the audience here and there, to really engage them with the character. One of the main differences between going to the music hall versus the theatre in Victorian times was that the former demanded your attention and involvement. You were a part of the entertainment and would be encouraged to sing along with the performer and orchestra.

A lion comique. Music sheet cover for 'I Like to be a Swell', sung by Arthur Lloyd
Mid to late 19th century
Museum no. S.741-2012
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lions comiques were a genre of character singers that played on one image in particular. They portrayed a young, attractive alpha-male who was more heavily concerned with drinking and women than he should have been. They were, however, the “heart throbs of the Victorian era”, appealing to the men who wanted the life and the women who wanted the men.

 Weirder Acts 
An important thing to note was that as women were becoming more involved in music hall, so was the popularity of male and female impersonators. Hetty King and Vesta Tilley were two of the most well known male impersonators, portraying “sailors, soldiers and navvies” (vam.ac.uk). Find here a great look at the women of music hall. Men also dressed as and impersonated women, but were “not as caricatured as the typical dame parts in pantomime” (vam.ac.uk), as the performers prided and devoted their act to the content of the character and not just the superficial surprise of their cross-dressing.

Music sheet cover for 'The Boys that Mind the Shop' sung by Vesta Tilley, late 19th to early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even Weirder Acts

As Dickens’ mentioned earlier, there was a wide array of strange acts that you could see. Our modern-day circus acts was what the Victorians flocked to see on weekday evenings. This programme for the Alhambra Theatre is self-explanatory for one night’s show. Ventriloquists, cyclists and even a team of trained cats. Everyone with a sense of humour and wishing for a night of entertainment could find it in a music hall performance. The sheer variety, size and popularity of music hall made it a universal form of entertainment; to be enjoyed by all.

Alhambra Theatre programme
January 1898
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London. See another fantastic Alhambra programme here.

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More blogs on Victorian music and music hall:


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